Saturday 28 July 2012

A Tale Of Two Torches

Last week, whilst on a visit back to the UK, I saw the Olympic torch relay go through my home town. My feelings were, to say the least, mixed.

The last time I had seen the Olympic torch, it was being hustled through the streets of London by members of the People's Armed Police under the eyes of angry demonstrators in the chilly April of 2008. This time round, however, things were quite different. The crowd that had gathered on Lancing village green despite the rain was there for the strict purposes of cheering the torch on its way to London.

Whilst I have never been entirely comfortable with flag-waving patriotism - there's something deeply un-British about it - I can't say I wasn't swayed by the enthusiasm. My young niece, clutching her Mandeville mascot, seemed to think the whole thing was totally marvellous. The story of Charlie White, the young lad who carried the torch for our stretch of the route, made it seem uncharitable to dwell on negative thoughts about the Olympics.

However, there are definitely things about the London Olympics which set people against them. Whilst these Olympics are, unlike the last games, not partly a PR exercise for a dictatorship, they have made some excessive impositions on the lives of British people.

The ridiculous VIP-only "Olympic Lanes" have sparked a lot of criticism for stopping Londoners from using the roads of their own city, even drawing comparisons to the the "ZiL Lanes" of the old Soviet Union. The over-zealous attitude of the Olympic authorities to protecting their brand has also caused concern. Above all the staggering cost of hosting the Olympics during a recession, and when it is far from certain how much of this money will end up in the pockets of the British tax-payer or create jobs in Britain, is highly controversial - although I should say that two members of my extended family are now working for LOCOG in different capacities. All these things give the impression that the IOC has become rather over-used to having its way whatever the cost or the inconvenience to the host nation.

However, people seem, at the very last minute, to have rallied around to support the Olympics. Much of this was thanks to Mitt Romney's rather ill-timed criticism and his tone-deaf behaviour during his visit to London. Danny Boyle's bizarre-but-magnificent open ceremony no doubt left foreign observers confused (the fireworks-display-to-Pink-Floyd section of it certain confused me - even if I enjoyed it as well), but for the average Brit it did manage to encapsulate the eccentricity that more than anything typifies the British character. The fact that dissenting voices have not been washed way, with people like Shami Chakrabarti and Doreen Lawrence featured prominently in the opening ceremony (their Chinese equivalents would be Xu Zhiyong and Ding Zilin), also underlines the difference between what London and the previous host city have to offer.

I myself have followed the same journey to a grudging acceptance and intention to enjoy the games. No doubt there will be cock-ups and bad weather, but then how else would we know that the games were being held in Britain?

[Video: BBC footage of Charlie White's torch run through Lancing]